By Marilyn Heimburger
Photos by the author
One of my early childhood memories is watching my aunt change the time on her cuckoo clock so I could hear the cuckoo sound over and over again.
My grandfather, who emigrated from Germany at the age of 22, bought the clock during his only visit back to his homeland, after World War II. Since my fascination with the clock has continued into adulthood, I was happy to learn more about them during a trip to Familia Drubba’s Hofgut Sternen. Breitnau, in Germany’s Black Forest, which was a stopover destination included in a Rhine River Viking Cruise I took recently.
GREETED BY CUCKOO AND MUSIC
If you pull into the Hofgut Sternen parking lot at the top of the hour, you’ll be greeted by the cuckoo, music, and dancing characters of one of the largest cuckoo clocks in Germany. The two-story-high clock is built into the side of the shop.
Inside the building, Jack, the cuckoo clock demonstrator, briefly explains the history and manufacturing process of Germany’s most popular souvenir. A primitive form of the cuckoo clock dates back to the mid-1600’s and used stones as weights (the original “rock around the clock,” according to Jack.) It had no minute hand, only one hand to tell the hour. Shield clocks, with a flat face board painted with colorful flowers and scenes, were made around 1720, with the first cuckoo appearing in one around 1760. The station house clock, with a peaked roof and hand-carved leaves and animals, appeared around 1860.
The cuckoo sound was chosen for the clock because it was an easy sound to imitate. Two different sized bellows send puffs of air into two wooden pipes, to produce the two-pitched cuckoo sound.
At least two pinecone-shaped weights hang on chains beneath the clock: one to operate the cuckoo and one for the cog-driven timing mechanism. If the clock has a third weight, it has been fitted with a music box, which plays after the call of the cuckoo. The clocks are “wound” by pulling the chains to raise the weights to their highest position. Clocks with large pinecone weights are wound once a week; clocks with small pinecones are wound every day. While my aunt had to still the oak leaf pendulum every night to stop the clock and quiet the cuckoo, many clocks now have a switch that turns off the cuckoo and music, but allows the clock to keep running.
CLOCKS FROM LINDEN TREE WOOD
Most cuckoo clocks are made of wood from the Linden tree, because it is easy to carve and has hardly any grain. Since the wood is so moist, it has to dry for two years before it can be used. To make the frame board for the front of the station house clock, a stencil is placed against the flat board, and the basic outline is lightly spray-painted. This design is cut using a scroll saw or jig saw. Nothing else is done by machine. The rest of the frame board is hand-carved, a process that can take six to eight weeks for a large clock. Vines, oak leaves, birds, rabbits and stags are the traditional decorations on station house clocks.
Character clocks add humor to timekeeping. One clock at Hofgut Sternen features a man shoveling a dumpling into his mouth with each sounding of the hour. The “mother-in-law clock” has a woman bopping a lazy son-in-law on his head at the top of the hour, to encourage him to get to work.
An interesting observation: during all of the years I’ve looked at cuckoo clocks, I had never noticed that the Roman numeral used for the number four on the clock face is IIII, and not IV. Two theories sem to be most popular explaniations for this. In ancient Roman times, “IV” was an abbreviation for the Roman god, Jupiter. IIII was therefore used out of respect so that Roman public sundials or clocks didn’t have “1 2 3 GOD 5” on them. Later clock markers continued to use this alternative Roman numeral system on their timepieces. The other theory is simply one of symmetry on the clock face. The number eight, or “VIII” on the clock dial, is the heaviest number, consisting of four characters. Using IV (only two characters) for the number 4 on the opposite side of the clock face, would ruin the symmetry. Therefore the four-character “IIII” is preferred.
I am now the proud owner of my aunt’s cuckoo clock. The carved oak leaf decorations show evience of being dropped and re-glued by my uncle. But the cuckoo still works, and now enchants my grandchildren just as it did for me.
IF YOU WANT MORE INFORMATION…
These retailers sell German-made cuckoo clocks on the web. We have listed them as a convenience to European Traveler readers, but we have no specific recommendations who to buy them from: www.clockway.com, www.german-cuckoos.com, www.BlackForestGifts.com and www.designedintime.com.